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Exposing the bottomfeeders 

Food and travel writer Taras Grescoe gets to the bottom of the seafood industry in his new book, Bottomfeeder.

Taras Grescoe is leading a downward journey toward bottomfeeding. "Twelve to 14 years ago I became a fish-eater, a piscivore," he says in a baritone voice, over the phone from Montreal. He is touring eastwards promoting his new book, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, with a stop at Saint Mary's University on Thursday, June 12.

Disturbed by "growth hormones, factory farms and antibiotics," Grescoe cut his meat intake down to fish only. Then the cod fishery collapsed and the stocks of the ocean's top predators declined by 90 percent.

The situation sent Grescoe searching for ethical, sustainable ways to eat the seafood he loves, which he credits for giving him "a whole new brain," high energy and an excellent mood. Knowing that if things don't change soon ours may be the last generation to enjoy wild seafood, he set out to indulge some of his favourite fish fantasies---rockfish soup on the Mediterranean, poisonous pufferfish in Japan, drunken Chinese shrimp.

Grescoe quested for ethical satiation---an understanding of how we can continue eating sea-sourced fatty acids without draining the ocean and doing in 200 million people who make their living off seafood. He visited the fishiest hotspots of the world, from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo to Indian shrimp farms to expensive haute poissonrestaurants of New York. The result is Bottomfeeder, a travelogue, culinary critique, ethical meditation and consumer guide.

"I looked at both what's happening and what can be done," Grescoe says. What's happening, he argues, is that the "white-tablecloth" trade---pandering to more-money-than-brain types who will spend $300 a plate for yesterday's trash fish to be on the cutting edge---is forever finding new species to drive to near-extinction.

The story of Julia Child and the monkfish is a classic example of this culture. "It was a trash fish," Grescoe explains, "until Child featured it in 1979. Turns out it has a tasty tail---they called it the poor-man's lobster. Now it goes for $25 in restaurants in New York and it's over-fished using bottom trawlers." Bottom trawlers on an ocean floor are like bulldozers in a forest---they kill everything. The dead matter is left to rot.

At the opposite end of the economic spectrum is the seafood most people eat: the farmed variety, processed and packaged. If you think the package of wild salmon you bought is really wild, think again. Grescoe says an American sting operation found 56 percent of packaged wild salmon "was actually farmed."

He invests considerable ink in exploring the trouble with farmed sea creatures (except oysters and a few other species that are safely and sustainably farmed). In short, they are inefficient, provide minimal nutrients, are full of pesticides, parasites and drugs, have a tendency to further deplete wild populations and destroy the livelihood and health of people who live near them.

"One thing we can ask from industry is for better labelling," Grescoe says. "Fish fillets might have pollock or cod---could be farmed or wild---there's no way to tell."

And that Nova Scotian lobster on your linguine may actually be our hideous friend, the monkfish. Grescoe writes that "there is no Food and Drug Administration, British Food Standards Agency, or Canadian Food Inspection Agency seal of approval for salmon, tuna, or any other form of seafood."

Scary stuff. But what's enjoyable about Grescoe is that it's not a doom-and-gloom rant with him. He's a straight-shooter, who appreciates the complexities facing consumers and fishers without being paralyzed by analysis. Unlike other environmental books, Grescoe doesn't pepper with pessimism and close with a few vague hopeful ideas. His hope rings throughout and it lies in ethical fisherfolk, informed consumers eating lower on the fish-chain and good government.

The genius of Bottomfeederis that it shows complexity as a human story we can relate to. "It's about seafood," he offers simply. "I think the way we intersect with our environment is with our tongues and stomachs."

Taras Grascoe, Thursday June 12, at Saint Mary's University, Scotiabank Theatre, 903 Robie, 7:30pm, free.

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